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Nature reigns supreme in Matagorda County

Reinvent a fun family vacation in Texas

© 2007 by Bonnie McKenna
All Rights Reserved

t is summer, the kids are out of school and everybody wants to go to the beach. Don’t feel like lying around in the sand all day? Want a place to take the family that has nature adventures, good restaurants, Texas history, and still have the beach to enjoy? A family vacation is more than just a time to rest and relax; it is a time for families to bond and enjoy exciting and unusual activities together.

Matagorda County, where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico, is an outdoor lover’s paradise and a place to find activities for the entire family to enjoy. Even though Houston is less than 100 miles away, Matagorda County still feels undiscovered and full of adventure. Your family can explore hundreds of acres of wetlands, coastal marshes and dunes in the Matagorda Bay Nature Park (www.lcra.org/parks).

The newly-opened conservation center is the place to sign up for guided kayak trips, beachcombing, beginning birding and educational workshops. Fishing is available along the shore and public piers. The park features a large RV park with 70 sites with full utility hookups. For the more adventuresome, tent camping is allowed on the beach. If getting a tan is in your plans, the park has 22 miles of beach along the warm waters of the Gulf.

The waters of Matagorda Bay offer prime fishing. Pier, drift and wade fishing for redfish, and speckled trout as well as deep-sea fishing for grouper, snapper, drum and more are available to enjoy. Canoeing and kayaking, whether novice or experienced paddler, trips are available for all skills and desire. In addition to kayaking at the nature park, Freebird Kayak and Canoe Adventures (www.matagorda-bay.com/freebird.html) offers family fun while floating down the gently flowing Colorado River.

Paddlers will have the opportunity to see native plants, turtles sunning along the banks and birds fishing for dinner. Growing in popularity, fishing by kayak is also available. Matagorda County is best known as a world class birding destination. The county has been number one in the nation for the past nine years in the prestigious national Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. Although birds can be found all over the county, one of the best places for birding is the Matagorda Birding Nature Center, (www.mcbnc.org). The center has 35 acres of interpretive trails and kiosks, educational facilities and specially constructed hummingbird and butterfly gardens. The park is open seven days a week, during daylight hours.

For sightseeing, oystering, shrimping, or fishing out on the bay, Matagorda native son Captain J.P, Arnold, a retired commercial fisherman, is available to take your family out on the bay with Day on the Bay Services (www.dayonthbayservices.com). You and your family will learn about the delicate ecosystem, wildlife habitats and natural beauty that make up the bay. Arnold will also entertain you with tales of his Tom Sawyer life as he and his brother Ozzie grew up on the bay.

The county’s roots date back to 1685 when the French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, sailed into the bay on his famous expedition looking for the Mississippi River. The La Belle, the last of the four ships that La Salle set out with from France, sank in Matagorda Bay in 1686. More than 300 years passed, when, in 1995, a diver from the Texas Historical Society discovered a cannon bearing the royal cartouche of France. The discovery drew worldwide attention in an effort to recover the La Belle. A large cofferdam was built around the ship, providing a dry area for archaeologists to excavate the shipwreck. A fully functioning, half-scale, seagoing replica of the La Belle is now being completed. The home port of La Petite Belle will be in Palacios and the Palacios Area Historical Museum will provide educational tours of the ship.

Matagorda County Museum in Bay City (www.baycity.org) is the official repository for the artifacts recovered from the La Belle including the cannon that touched off the recovery of the ship. The museum also highlights the contributions of native American Indians living in the area, Stephen F. Austin and other prominent Texas pioneers that contributed to the growth of the county. Need something special for the children to do? The basement of the museum is devoted entirely to children.

A small Texas town has been recreated complete with a school, post office, drug store and theater. It is delightful place where children are encouraged to play and use their imaginations by ‘dressing-up’ and playing with the antiques items on display in the various rooms. The shrimping capital of Texas is Palacios. Outdoor attractions include the Mad Island Marsh Preserve and Tres Palacios Bay for fishing, sailing, birding and seven miles of pristine beaches.

While in Palacios, the Outrigger Restaurant (www.outriggerrestaurant.com) is a great place to enjoy a taste of Texas seafood fresh from the bay. The restaurant has been a town landmark since 1906, first as a lumberyard, then as a plumbing shop. In 2000, the building was transformed into the Outrigger Restaurant. Many relics displayed around the restaurant are reminiscent of the building’s history. Looking for good barbecue? Bay City boasts of having some of the best in Texas. A&A Bar-B-Que slow roasts their barbecue over pecan wood and complements it with their never-duplicated secret barbecue sauce. Don’t miss it; it is delicious.

A trip to Matagorda County would not be complete without a visit to Blessing. The town was named out of gratitude for the era of railroads and Gulf Coast development. The Hotel Blessing’s Coffee Shop is real time, boarding house, dining room with about a dozen tables of various types and sizes.

Against the back wall there are several old stoves covered with pots and pans full of steaming vittles befitting the menu of the day. Service is buffet style. Everyone is encouraged to, in the words of Helen Feldhousen, proprietor of the hotel, “Help yourself, grab a plate, the food is on the stove.” Price for the entire all-you-can-eat meal, including dessert and beverage, is only $7.50. Blessing is also a quilter’s paradise. Across the street from the Blessing Hotel is the Blessing Fabric and Bead Studio (www.5881200.com). The store carries all the common tools used in quilting and more. There is an extensive selection of beads from around the world, more than 2,000 bolts of fabric and a long-arm quilting service for the quilter who is too busy.

Accommodations in Matagorda County vary from vacation rental cottages, fishing lodges and hotels to classic bed and breakfast inns. One of the more famous B and B’s in Matagorda is the Stanley-Fisher House (www.stanley-fisher.com). The house was built in 1832. It is one of the first houses built in Texas. Fisher was first secretary of the Republic of Texas Navy and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. The current owners, Rik and Peggy Stanley, have restored the house, preserving the original elements as much as possible and added modern amenities for your comfort. “We recycled everything we could right down to the door knobs,” said Peggy. The house comes with a ghost. The Stanleys say there are reported sightings, but to their knowledge, no resident has ever been bothered.

All this and more can be found just a short hour and a half away from Houston. Head south on U.S. Highway 59 toward Victoria, turn-off the highway at Wharton and take State Highway 60 to Bay City, the county seat of Matagorda County. From Bay City it is an easy drive to Palacios, Blessing and Matagorda to enjoy all of the family activities, adventures and beaches that will make your family vacation a memorable one. For more information on Matagorda County, go to www.baycity.org. bmckenna@ourtribune.com